The Return of the Militants

BBC Newsnight’s Liz MacKean reports in advance of the publication of a report for The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) – Return of the Militants: Violent Dissident Republicanism

From the BBC report

The report’s author, Martyn Frampton, told Newsnight that Northern Ireland is at a crucial juncture because of the coming together of two distinct generations of dissident republicans.

Veterans disillusioned by the direction the republican movement has taken, who no longer believe the Sinn Fein political path has been sufficiently beneficial, are joining forces with disaffected teenagers from Northern Ireland’s poorest areas.

“It is the coming together of these two generations, the foot soldiers if you like – the angry young men with the seasoned 40-somethings who have a degree of expertise and know-how – that makes this current time particularly dangerous,” he says.

From the report’s Executive Summary [pdf file]

Increased threat from dissidents

• The danger posed by violent, dissident Irish republicans is now at its greatest level in over a decade. MI5 has raised the official threat level from these groups from ‘moderate’ to ‘substantial’ and warned against the real possibility of a strike on the British mainland.

• Violent dissident republicans are committed to the conduct of an armed campaign in Northern Ireland. Their aim is to prevent ‘normalisation’, undermine the province’s peace process and foment political instability – to show that the ‘Irish Question’ has not been solved. In their view, that question can never be solved for as long as there is no united Ireland.

• Their lethal potential was shown with the triple murder of security force members in March 2009. Since that time, there has been a constant drum-beat of dissident attacks, with varying levels of success. One policeman has been critically injured; several others have received less serious wounds and had ‘lucky misses’. It appears to be a matter of time – of when, not if – dissident republicans will kill again.

Recent history of dissident activities

• There is an important pre-history to the current escalation in violence. Dissident republicanism, the creed of those committed to the path of ‘armed struggle’, survived the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. It also survived the catastrophe of the Omagh bomb of August 1998. Since that time, there have been intermittent but continual attempts to de-rail the peace process. For a long time, these were mostly unsuccessful, or low-level in nature. Consequently, they were largely ignored by the mainstream media, giving a false impression of stability in Northern Ireland.

• The most recent surge in violence is led by the Real IRA and dates back to late 2007, when two off-duty policemen were shot and injured in separate attacks.

• The Real IRA (RIRA), formed in 1997 by members of the Provisional IRA opposed to the peace process, is today composed of two distinct factions. One of them has become increasingly prominent, operating under the banner of ‘Oglaigh na hEireann’ (ONH).

Other splinter groups also active

• There have also been other groups committed to the use of violence against the status quo in Ireland. These include the Continuity IRA (CIRA), and a short-lived Strabane-based splinter group, which – confusingly – also operated under the name of ‘Oglaigh na hEireann’. The former was responsible for the murder of a police officer in March 2009; the latter for a civilian murder in February 2008. This branch of ONH no longer exists and the banner ‘Oglaigh na hEireann’, in dissident republican terms, is now principally associated with the Real IRA.

• Alongside organised forms of violent dissident republicanism, there has been a fragmentation of other republican sub-set organisations, producing groups of unaligned republicans, whose loyalties are often promiscuous.

• Whatever their affiliation, dissidents of one hue or another appear to enjoy increasing control in ‘republican areas’ across Northern Ireland: south Fermanagh, Derry city (Bogside and Creggan), south Derry, north Armagh (Lurgan-Craigavon), east Tyrone, south Armagh and Belfast (north and west).

Weakening of the Provisional IRA and local police

• The growth in dissident strength has been paralleled by the retraction and withering of the Provisional IRA, as well as other structures of social support for the broader Provisional movement (Sinn Féin offices, community groups etc.).

• The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has struggled to respond to the challenge posed by dissident republicans. Senior officers have admitted the existence of a skills-gap. This is a product of a hoped for peace ‘dividend’, which saw the dismantling of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s (RUC) counter-terrorist infrastructure and wider budgetary cuts.

• The ability of the PSNI to deliver ‘community policing’ has been seriously weakened by dissident violence, with various reports of ‘go-slow’ and ‘no-go’ policing areas.

Effectiveness of dialogue?

• It has been suggested that dialogue might help diminish the dissident threat. But the dissident groups themselves, unsurprisingly, reject such propositions. Their raison d’être is to oppose the political process and the parameters around which it is based.

• Dissidents believe that the mistake the Provisional IRA leadership made in the 1990s was to engage in a flawed negotiation process. In their view, there can be no negotiations until the British agree to leave Ireland. Until such time, they insist the violence must continue. [added emphasis]

• Note: ‘Dissident republicanism’, as a broad phenomenon, includes some who are still committed to the path of violence – but also some who are not. The term ‘dissident’ is in that sense used as a catch-all, to encompass those of an Irish republican persuasion who have broken with the ‘mainstream’ movement of Sinn Féin and the Provisionals. It is by their opposition to the peace process and/or the political status quo in Northern Ireland that they have come to be labelled ‘dissidents’, though they dispute that very term.

And here’s the report’s conclusion.

It would seem, therefore, that the period 2009–10 saw the confluence of various events and factors that brought the situation to a potential ‘tipping point’ in the history of dissident republicanism.  Overall the impression was that violent dissident republicanism could draw on increased numbers of supporters, an expanding territorial base, and an ever-greater ‘skills set’. There were also suggestions of growing levels of cooperation across the various organisations.

To those involved with such groups, the reality of day-to-day life in Northern Ireland appears secondary, when set against the failure of the peace process to deliver Irish unity. They are therefore unconcerned with reforms to the way that Northern Ireland operates, such as changes to police or justice system to make it more palatable to Catholic-nationalist minority population. This line of thinking was encapsulated in March 2010 by Geraldine Taylor of the CIRA-aligned Republican Sinn Féin. She declared that the new Northern Irish Justice Minister would be as much ‘an enemy of the Irish people’ as police officers and British soldiers; the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to the local Stormont parliament was said to be merely an ‘extension of British occupation’.

The dissidents oppose the political status quo, reject the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. Those within the ranks of the CIRA, RIRA and ONH are determined to posit a violent challenge to the current dispensation in Northern Ireland.

Republican rejectionism, it should be noted, also ran wider than these purely militant organisations. The last decade has seen the birth of various new entities, all of which claim to embody the ‘truest’ form of Irish republicanism: from the New Republican Forum, to the Republican Network for Unity, to éirígí (and even more recently, to ‘Real Sinn Féin’). All of these view modern Ireland as tainted by the ‘injustices’ that stem from ‘British rule’.  It is for this reason that they use issues such as nationalist opposition to Orange Order parades, or the conditions faced by dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry jail, to highlight the supposed ‘malignancy’ of the British state. In addition, they note the disparity between what they were offered through the peace process and what it delivered. It was meant, according to Sinn Féin and leaders like Gerry Adams, to be ‘a stepping stone or transition to a united Ireland’, but this has proved illusory. In the eyes of the dissidents all that has happened is that their former comrades have moved ‘to renounce core demands and principles’.

As a result, they see their role as being to stick true to the path of authentic Irish republicanism. As Francie Mackey of the 32CSM has put it,

“History has shown that when many lost their nerve and threw up their arms in surrender, there were always the few and the brave to keep the faith and carry on the torch of republicanism on behalf of our future generations.”

 The 32CSM, together with other political expressions of dissident republicanism, as well as those more militant groups such as the Real IRA, CIRA and ONH now feel themselves to embody the ‘few and the brave’ of contemporary Ireland. For this reason there seems little prospect that the phenomenon of militant Irish republicanism will be disappearing any time soon.

In this context, what needs to be accepted is the fact that sometimes it is simply not possible to co-opt all of those with whom one disagrees. It seems unlikely that the modern day dissidents can be persuaded to accept current political realities. If the British state wishes to defend and preserve the peace process in Northern Ireland it must accept that the dissidents will not be joining that process.  Consequently, to invert the old adage, those who will not join, must eventually be beaten. [added emphasis]

Of course, “they are doing nothing which the Provisionals didn’t do before them and with the same political rationale”.